Parents Of Deceased Drum Major Say 'Enough'

Robert Champion, Jr. died after a Florida A&M University football game last month. He was part of the school's legendary marching band. Hazing is suspected in Champion's death, and his parents say the university hasn't done enough to eradicate the practice. Host Michel Martin speaks with his parents, Pamela and Robert Champion, Sr.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, a tragic story that's revived concerns about hazing on campus. Robert Champion, Jr. was a 26 year old drum major at Florida A&M University's legendary marching band, The Marching 100. He died after he was found unresponsive on a band bus in November.

Florida A&M's longtime band director, Julian White, is on paid administrative leave as the police investigation continues. The school has also moved to expel four students connected to the case.

Now, Champion's parents are speaking out and saying that Florida A&M officials did not do enough to prevent the hazing that they believe was responsible for their son's death. They say they're planning to file a lawsuit against the school.

And Pamela and Robert Champion, Sr. are with us now. Thank you both so much for speaking with us and, as I said, I'm so very sorry for your loss.

PAMELA CHAMPION: Thank you.

ROBERT CHAMPION, SR.: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: Could I start by asking either of you why you believe that hazing was responsible for Robert's death?

CHAMPION: Pretty much, there's a lot of different stories and information that's going out. What we are hearing now, that hazing was a part of it. So, basically, it's just the information that we are getting through the news media that they came to the conclusion that it had to do with the hazing.

MARTIN: Had Robert ever complained to either of you or spoken to either of you about hazing being part of his life before he died? Because I have to tell you that one of the things that's puzzling and surprising to many people - maybe it shouldn't be surprising - is that I know that people have heard a lot about hazing in connection with fraternities and sororities and sometimes even sports teams. But I don't know that a lot of people were familiar with hazing as a part of a group like the band. So had he ever talked about this before?

SR.: No, he hadn't. There had been times where my son and I had conversation on the telephone and I always tried to ask him what's going on and anything that I need to know and not once did he ever mention to me anything about hazing.

MARTIN: You've been vocal since this tragedy occurred and you've talked to a number of people in the media and certainly talked to the authorities about hazing. That has to be difficult. What is it that causes you to speak out?

CHAMPION: We're speaking out because we want to - in my son's name, to be able to put a stop to it, to end all the hazing. Now that the door has been opened and we can see all the things that are behind that door, I think it needs to be cleaned out and stopped and I think that speaking out, making people aware of what it is and what happens and the damages and the things that it can do to not only the individuals, but to the family and the people and to the school. We have put together a Facebook that - it's called Drum Major for Change, Robert D. Champion. And the purpose of that Facebook is for people to go onto that Facebook and maybe share their stories, leave comments.

We are also looking at putting in place a hotline - an anonymous hotline - so students would have a place to call in and to seek help if they are involved or in the middle of or going into any type of haze.

Our goal is to rid the campuses of hazing.

MARTIN: Mr. Champion?

SR.: Yes. We wanted to speak out because in the last few days since my son's death, there have been people come to me telling me things about the problems they've been having themselves and asking me, Mr. Champion, this is time that we need to do something to stop this.

Our job now is to carry our son's name on and try to do something about this problem because this is a problem not only at my son's school, but these problems are all over the world. It's even in the high schools, so now is the time where we need to speak and address the problem.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea what exactly or what is believed to have led to your son's death? Because I'm just having a hard time picturing - first of all, I have to say the job of drum major is not an easy one. It's a leadership position. It requires a tremendous level of physical fitness. Do you have any idea what exactly is alleged to have occurred that led to his death?

CHAMPION: Well, we don't have any idea. We know about as much as what you're hearing on the media and until all the evidence and everything that comes out, then we will know because we really don't know what happened.

MARTIN: Finally, before we let you go - and I thank you both again for speaking to us at such a difficult time - could you just, as a final thought, just tell us whatever else you'd like us to know about your son, just so that the last thing we think of him and hear of him is not how he died, but how he lived. Tell us something about him.

CHAMPION: Well - and I'll let my husband address this, as well. But my son was a lover of music and that, from a early age, he showed the signs of being talented in music, so what we did was just pave the way for him to excel in music. But he loved music and he not only loved music, he was a Christian. He loved God. So Robert - his demeanor, as we stated before, was a humble one. He always seeked out and assisted anyone in any way that he could. Robert never met a stranger. Everyone that he met was his friend. Anyone that you talk to that knew Robert will tell you that he not only was their friend but he made an impact on their lives.

The thing is is that he had so much talent, he had so much to give. Everyone that he touched, he always left them with something that was positive.

MARTIN: Mr. Champion?

SR.: Yes. Well, I'm going to remember my son as that I'm very proud of him and the accomplishments that he made to the schools and all of organizations that he had participated in. I'm proud of him because I seen a young boy grow up to be a young man and try to make a difference and he just opened a door now, so we want to address the problem and let people know that we're going to do all we can to get this hazing thing stopped so no other kid will have to go through what he went through.

MARTIN: Pamela and Robert Champion, Sr. are the parents of Robert Champion, Jr. He is the Florida A&M University drum major who died in a suspected hazing incident in November. The Champions joined us from their home in Decatur, Georgia.

Mr. and Mrs. Champion, I thank you so very much for speaking with us. I'm so very sorry for your loss and I do thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

SR.: Thank you.

CHAMPION: Thank you.

MARTIN: We'd also like to let you know that we reached out several times for a comment from Florida A&M University officials. We have not yet received a response.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Just ahead, she's been called the mistress of heartache, but she says her fascination with broken hearts comes from a desire to heal.

RACHAEL YAMAGATA: Sometimes, I describe it like a doctor that's finding a cure for a disease. They're always focused on the disease but the ultimate goal is to find a cure.

MARTIN: Singer/songwriter Rachael Yamagata is with us and she has songs from her new album, "Chesapeake." That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SATURDAY MORNING")

YAMAGATA: (Singing) It's Saturday morning and we got off late.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: As the Congressional Hispanic Caucus celebrates its 35th year, we take a look at how it grew from five lonely members into a force on Capitol Hill. Caucus Chairman Charles Gonzalez tells us about the early days, his agenda now and hopes for the future. That's next time on TELL ME MORE.

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